What Is Culinary Medicine?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 09, 2023
4 min read

We already know that what we eat affects our health. But did you know there's a whole branch of medicine related to using food to treat and prevent disease? Culinary medicine is a new field taught in some medical school programs. 

It looks at how you shop for food and at the ways you cook, store, and eat it. It combines the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine and healing.

Research shows you can help prevent illness, treat disease, and sometimes fix your health with proper nutrition. Doctors trained in culinary medicine can help you make good medical decisions related to the kind of food you eat.

But it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Culinary medicine is focused on your personalized health needs. Different foods help different people with different conditions. Your diet may not work well for someone else.

Culinary medicine isn’t just about healthy food choices. It aims to use foods that are important in your culture, meals you enjoy, and recipes you find fun to create. It includes information on healthy eating patterns. It also helps you know how to shop for healthy foods and how to store and prepare them.

The goal is to give you the knowledge you need to care for your own health through nutritious and enjoyable food.

Rather than heavily processed foods and ingredients, those used to address disease are more likely unprocessed or minimally processed foods. 

Your doctor can work with you to create the best diet for your health issues. You can ask them to consider foods that are popular in your culture or meals that you enjoy. They’ll look at these foods and see how they can best be used to benefit you. Rather than heavily processed foods and ingredients, they’ll encourage you to choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods. 

An important part of culinary medicine is bioavailability. This has to do with the nutrients in your food and how available they are to your body. Their health benefits can depend on your food’s temperature, the way it’s cooked or prepared, and how you eat foods together. Some examples include:

  • Olive oil mixed with tomatoes or tomato paste helps your body absorb more nutrients.
  • Leafy greens paired with avocado can increase your body’s nutrient absorption up to seven times more than eating leafy greens without avocado.
  • Foods of the same color in the same dish can create better flavors (red tomatoes with red bell peppers in a soup).
  • Leave watermelon on the kitchen counter to reach room temperature before eating it, This allows your body to absorb more of its nutrients compared to eating it cold.
  • Let garlic sit for 10 minutes before you cook it to let its nutrient levels rise.

Some diets and foods are as effective or more effective than prescription meds in treating certain health issues, studies show. Some examples include: 

  • A diet of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, low salt, and low-fat dairy for treating high blood pressure
  • Baked and broiled fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and tuna, for reducing risk of heart attack and stroke
  • A Mediterranean diet rich in whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables for managing cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes

More Americans are eating out and cooking at home less. But a study found that cooking your meals at home leads to eating fewer calories.

Research also shows that making food at home leads to a healthier overall diet. Home cooked meals may allow you to eat more fruits and vegetables. Also, you’re better able to control what goes into your body.

Culinary medicine uses this concept to target and improve your well-being. It can be a relatively low-cost and easy way to take charge of your health.

Around 41 million people around the world die each year from chronic diseases. Unhealthy eating patterns and poor lifestyle habits are top causes of these health problems. Because of this, nutrition should be used as a main tool of prevention. 

But in many cases, doctors have reported that they don’t know enough about culinary medicine. While they know nutrition is important to health, they say their medical education didn’t train them to use food for treating or preventing health issues.

That’s why culinary medicine is being taught at more and more medical schools in the U.S. and other countries. It gives doctors effective practice tools that are less costly than meds.  But you may still need meds to treat or improve your health. 

Early research into culinary medicine programs shows they also help doctors feel more confident using food in treatment plans.

Some reasons awareness of culinary medicine is growing are:

  • The popularity of cooking shows 
  • Frustration with traditional medical treatments for chronic illnesses, and more interest in finding other ways to treat them
  • Rising health care costs that may force you to choose between buying meds or food
  • Increased awareness of how unhealthy fast food and highly processed food can be
  • Trends in organic food, local farms, home gardening, and farmers markets

Interest in this emerging field is growing. So is the number of med schools offering culinary medicine training. But with lots of differences in those programs, it’s hard to measure the field’s benefits as a whole. 

Different schools provide different systems of delivery and feedback and a different mix of teaching staff. If programs were more alike, researchers could better study the impact of culinary medicine training.

Studies show these classes can help doctors use nutrition to improve lives. But more data is needed to tell if they’re more effective than traditional nutrition-related courses.